HOUSTON — DANA HOLGORSEN is putting his Houston football team through its paces during a spring practice at the school’s indoor facility.

On one end of the field, Houston‘s 11 conference championship seasons are posted in red letters against the wall. At the other end, Houston’s 30 bowl appearances are listed. While the accomplishments of the past are never out of view, there is an eagerness in the air to capture an even brighter future, a sense that bigger and better things are ahead.

When the doors swing open and practice moves outside, it’s a surprisingly sunny day with some light clouds and a nice breeze in the city’s Third Ward, and the energy ramps up.

At the center of it are quarterbacks Lucas Coley, who worked his way up to No. 2 on the depth chart last season, and Donovan Smith, a transfer from Texas Tech. They’re in competition to replace Clayton Tune, who was a force the past two seasons for Holgorsen’s offense.

Smith, who led Tech to a double-overtime comeback win over Houston in Week 2 last season, looks the part; he’s listed at a sturdy 6-foot-5 and 241 pounds. At one point, he throws a 60-yard dime to sophomore wide receiver CJ Nelson that draws some ooh and aahs as Future’s “I’m So Groovy” plays in the background.

As Holgorsen wraps up practice, he gathers the team near midfield. He gives the players words of encouragement and tells them they need to have more practices like the one they just had.

Hovering around throughout the practice, in a white tee, camo pants and Space Jam Air Jordan 11s, has been former Texas star and Houston native Vince Young, who drops wisdom on the quarterbacks after Holgorsen breaks the huddle.

This is the type of day many around the program, and in the city of Houston in general, have longed for since 1996, when they believe the Cougars got the short end of the stick in conference realignment. With the Southwest Conference dissolving, Baylor, Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech bolted for what had been the Big Eight, making it the Big 12, while Houston wound up in the newly formed Conference USA. But things will come full circle for the Cougars on July 1, when they officially — and finally — become members of the Big 12.

“This is that moment,” Houston athletic director Chris Pezman said. “Probably in the early 2010s, Clemson had a ‘What are we going to be? We’re going to go f—ing win at football’ moment. And this is kind of a moment where we have the opportunity to have that.

“What are we going to be when we grow up?”

OUTSIDE OF HOUSTON’S Alumni Center athletics facility, on a wall of windows about 20 feet high, is a huge “UH” logo next to an equally sized “XII” Big 12 logo. It’s a new pairing, but the emblems look natural together.

Dozens of men’s and women’s athletes from all sports funnel in and out of the building, buzzing throughout the lobby. Meanwhile, in the football section of the building, upstairs and to the right, a mockup of Houston’s planned football-only facility sits on a table in the reception area shared by Holgorsen and his right-hand man, Ryan Dorchester. It’s a reminder of the work still to be done in the transition to the Big 12.

Just down the hall from his office, Holgorsen is in the team room getting ready for a meeting, drinking out of a styrofoam cup that reads in red lettering “HOUSTON” with the “US” in black.

Holgorsen made an uncommon move after the 2018 season, leaving a Power 5 school in West Virginia for a Group of 5 school in Houston after helping the Mountaineers transition from the Big East to the Big 12. But Holgorsen has had a vision of what Houston football could be since 2008, when he was the Cougars’ up-and-coming offensive coordinator for quarterback Case Keenum and a unit that was second in the nation with 562.8 yards per game.

“In 2008, this was — I loved it,” Holgorsen said. “It felt Group of 5, it felt commuter school, it felt Third Ward.

“Someone was here the other day and I go, ‘What do you think the difference is between here now and here then?’ He goes, ‘Well, other than everything?'” Holgorsen said with a laugh.

Holgorsen said it wasn’t hard to leave Morgantown after eight years at the helm, but added, “I loved it there. I mean, I would have stayed there forever, but they were more committed here than they were there. And [Houston] promised me that it would be run like a Power 5 place, and it is, which is another reason why we got into the Big 12, because we’re already acting like we’re in the Big 12.”

The changes that Holgorsen had to oversee at West Virginia when it moved to the Big 12 — including adding to his staff and restructuring recruiting — essentially had to happen on the fly, as the school accepted an invitation to join the conference in late October 2011 and played in the Big 12 the following season.

Houston has been preparing for its step up for more than 21 months, accepting an invitation to join the Big 12 in September 2021. And while this isn’t Holgorsen’s first rodeo in the Big 12, it’s not the same bull he’s grabbing by the horns.

“Just because I’ve made that transition doesn’t guarantee any kind of success whatsoever,” Holgorsen said. “Now there’s familiarity, and I kind of know now the one advantage that we have here at Houston: It was a two-year plan, not a two-month plan [like it was at West Virginia].”

Still, Holgorsen said his role has changed since he first took the Houston job because of the Big 12 transition.

“For me it’s less X’s and O’s and more CEO. You know, more fundraising,” he said. Holgorsen was asked if he thought he was good at that. After a brief pause, he replied, “I talked myself out of $1 million.”

In June 2022, Houston announced a $150 million fundraising campaign titled “HOUSTON RISE” in preparation for the move. During the presentation, Holgorsen pledged $1 million of his $4.2 million salary to show his commitment.

Holgorsen said he is comfortable with the shift in his role and in delegating some duties because of the continuity of his staff and the trust he has in them.

Officially the assistant athletic director for football operations, Dorchester (better known as “Dor”) had been at West Virginia prior to Holgorsen’s arrival in 2011 but has stayed with him ever since. The same is true of Darl Bauer, Houston’s director of strength and performance, and less formally, the program’s “culture setter.” Doug Belk, Houston’s associate head coach, defensive coordinator and one of college football’s rising stars in the coaching ranks, has been with Holgorsen since 2017. Casey Smithson, Houston’s director of player personnel, has been with Holgorsen since 2014, with a brief gap in 2019 when Holgorsen initially arrived in Houston.

In speaking with Dor, it quickly becomes clear why he and so many others have stuck with Holgorsen.

“If he sees it, he’s got to say something about it. But I think the biggest thing about him is he’s not ego driven. It’s never been about him. It’s never about his idea,” Dorchester said. “He’s never been so egotistical that it’s like, ‘This is how we’re going to do this and I’m refusing to listen to anybody give me any sort of advice, or have an idea on something else.'”

Holgorsen still describes himself as a ball coach, somebody who is in the meetings and setting schedules. He turned over playcalling duties a year ago, and said he has been happy with how that has worked out. He also trusts Belk to get the defense closer to its 2021 form after an injury-filled 2022.

“So where we’re at from that is functional,” Holgorsen said. “As long as that’s functional, then I can do other things. Any of that becomes unfunctional, then I’ve got to put everything else on hold because that’s the most important thing.”

ULTIMATELY, WHETHER A program’s move up from the Group of 5 to the Power 5 is a success or a failure comes down to the roster. In the spring, 37 players on Houston’s 85-man roster were new via recruiting and the transfer portal, after Holgorsen brought in what he estimated was 30-32 new players last year.

“Now, are all 37 of those Big 12 football players? I hope. But in recruiting, you’re always going to have misses,” he said. “Now from a high school perspective, we’re landing — and this is two years in a row — some that we wouldn’t have landed. Clearly. We’re getting some back that we didn’t get out of high school. Is it at the rate that it needs to be to be able to compete with TCU, West Virginia, Texas, Kansas State, Baylor, Cincinnati, Oklahoma State? I don’t know. I hope. I think it’s trending in that direction.”

Belk, who plays a big role in Houston’s recruiting, said the transition also is paying dividends in that area.

“People are very prideful about not only the state of Texas, but being from the city of Houston,” he said. “Growing up, you see ‘Friday Night Lights,’ and you see all these different things. And I think a lot of those guys that are venturing out away from the state of Texas and the city of Houston and surrounding areas, they really want to be at home.

“But the opportunity for them to play at the highest level hasn’t been there, and we can all understand that, as much as we would like to have them here. Now we have an opportunity to get in the fight and battle with everybody that’s coming in and out of the state and in and out of the city to compete to get those guys on campus. And the first step to that has been really, really good for us.”

Smithson, who came to Houston in 2020 from West Virginia, said the recruiting staff was made up of three people and some interns when he arrived. He says it’s now on par with where they need to be at the Power 5 level with seven full-time people.

Their strategy in recruiting hasn’t necessarily changed, though. “You’re always looking for the best player possible,” Smithson said. “But the question always is, are they good enough to win your conference? And that player changes between the American and Big 12.”

Once the players get in the building, Bauer assumes the development role and helps get new players up to speed while maintaining a standard among the entire team.

“We need to build a program that can sustain success,” Bauer said. “And the culture piece, he puts the majority of that on me. We’re going to bring these guys in, whether they’re transfers or jucos or whoever, installment of the culture. If a guy’s a hard worker, if guys are not hard workers, if their punctuality is not good, if their discipline is not good, I take all those things personally because I take it on myself as a strength coach to utilize our environment to install that software into their brains. Their brain’s a computer, you got to install it, you get them thinking a certain way and get them talking a certain way.”

With the move up to the Power 5, Holgorsen said one of the most important changes in terms of building the roster is the increased importance not just of quality, but also of quantity.

“It goes back to, you know, we got some top-level guys that I know can play in the Big 12,” Holgorsen said. “We had top-level guys that I know could have played the Big 12 last year. It’s more 44 instead of 22.

“The point is, you better have two to three at each position so that when [someone] goes down, you’re not putting a Group of 5 player in there.”

CHRIS PEZMAN’S DESK is lathered in papers. The former Houston football letterman (1989-1992) and captain has been the university’s athletic director since December 2017. He has seen up close what the program has been and has a vision of what it can be.

“There’s a lot to get done, but it’s all good. I ain’t complaining,” he said. “You’re just like, ‘Got to get this done, got to get that done.’ And have this one chance to make this transition. You kind of gotta nail it.

“Trying to find the balance of what matters and helps them win, and helps give us a chance is … it’s a lot. But I’ll take it. I mean, being on the other side, getting left out and having been there, I’d much rather be on this side of it.”

Part of the intrigue in hiring Holgorsen back in 2019 was for this exact opportunity. After a 70-14 Armed Forces Bowl loss to Army in 2018, Houston wanted to make sure its next coach would make that drubbing a distant memory, while also propelling the team into a future they believe they’ve deserved for decades.

“When we hired him, we were still two years away from the opportunity to move into the Big 12,” Pezman said. “And so you’d hope that it would happen, but I certainly didn’t expect it to happen so quickly.”

It’s sometimes still a shock for Pezman. “I’m telling you, man, I walk into meetings, I’m looking around like, ‘Am I in the right spot?’ It’s almost like imposter syndrome,” he said.

But he quickly reroutes the direction of the sentiment. “There’s nothing we haven’t done, and that was without anything — support or infrastructure or money. So we’re going to be all right. I know we’re going to be good.”

The urgency for a new football facility is not lost on Pezman, and he insisted that despite being more than a year removed from the announcement of the project without breaking ground, the $140 million complex is happening.

Pezman said the timeline for completion is 24 to 30 months from when ground is broken, which is scheduled for the end of the 2023 season. “We’re trying to do it in phases,” he said. “That’s what we’re working through right now.

“I need to get football right. You’ve been downstairs, you know what we’re working with, and [Holgorsen’s] right. Day to day is not good enough. Especially when you see what basketball has, what baseball has. We’ve got to get football … their own space and a chance to operate like everybody else is.”

The biggest obstacle through Pezman’s lens is the financials.

“Our revenues are going to go up at like a 45-degree angle, our expenses are going up at a 90-degree angle,” he said. “And so you’re trying to figure out a way to balance what you know you’ve got to do to give your coaches and your program a chance to be successful, but also afford it.”

One way affording it becomes easier is if fans show up to games, which is something Pezman has been optimistic about. The program had set a goal of 5,100 new season tickets and surpassed that, with more than 6,000 new season-ticket orders and 23,500 overall, a TDECU Stadium record.

Along with the season tickets, Houston is adding 10 new suites to their stadium for the fall. “They were gone in a day,” Pezman said. “Literally one day. If you just told me that five years ago, I feel like it’d take me two months to do that. And those are not cheap, they’re like 50 grand a pop.

“So I know the revenues are coming, they’re going to be there. Now we got to hit on our per-game revenue and our mini packages and things like that. But I would tell you, big picture it’s just getting everybody in the mindset of what we were isn’t what we are and what we’re going to be, and that means a lot of different things.”

One of those things — if not the main thing — is the product on the field. In that regard, Pezman said he is “cautiously optimistic.”

He said he believes that considering the Cougars’ schedule — which includes 10 teams that made bowls last season — if they finish with a seven- or eight-win season, “[Holgorsen] could be coach of the year.”

“Figure out a way to get to a bowl game, figure out a way to continue to build the roster, the depth that you have to have to have a chance to be consistently successful, and then build up off of that. Hopefully by — maybe I’m being too ambitious — but by Year 3, you’re hopefully starting to edge up and people are like, ‘Hey, if the stars align, they could be playing for a conference championship.'”

HOUSTON KICKS OFF the 2023 season at home against UTSA, which has won 23 games in the past two seasons under Jeff Traylor, including last season’s thrilling triple-overtime season opener between the teams. The following week, the Cougars go down the road to Rice, then begin their first Big 12 conference slate at home Sept. 16 against 2022 College Football Playoff finalist TCU.

The conference schedule includes an October visit from former Southwest Conference rival Texas for the teams’ first meeting since 2002. While Houston fans have waited two decades for a chance to knock off the Longhorns, this might be their lone shot for the foreseeable future as Texas moves on to the SEC next season.

For the historical record, Houston officially becomes a member of the Big 12 on July 1. For Holgorsen and his staff, it’s just another day on the calendar.

“What’s the difference in now and July? Nothing.” Holgorsen said in March. “Now what’s the difference in now, and next July, and the next July? A lot. This July our budget’s going to be the same as it was last July. … I’ve been very happy with the budget and all that stuff. I mean, we’re gonna be all right.

“Now, it needs to grow the next year once we get more money from the Big 12 and it needs to grow the next year once we get more money from the Big 12. But we’re gonna be two Julys and three Julys away from where it’s like being anywhere close to being on par with the other people that have been in the Big 12, not counting BYU, Cincinnati and UCF.”

Holgorsen also said that the season ticket sales, plus money from concessions and other revenue streams will be great for the school’s athletic department starting this summer.

“That stuff’s extremely exciting,” he said. “But it ain’t happening overnight, we all know that.

“But a couple years down the road when we’re fully vested, and our facilities are up to par, that’s when it’s like, ‘OK, now we’re here.’

“What’s kind of cool is I think we’ve all got the same mindset about legacy. What Kelvin [Sampson] is doing in basketball, he ain’t doing anything else for the rest of his career. He’s going to keep doing this and build it and leave a legacy. What [university president Renu Khator has] done and is doing, she’s going to do it for another however many years and get it to where it’s as good as it can possibly be, which is her legacy and then she’s going to be done.

“I’d like to do the same thing in football. I don’t want any other job. This one is going to be hard enough and extremely challenging. And that’s why we do what we do, is to build it when it’s challenging. And so it’s going to be challenging, so let’s just keep building it and get it to where I feel like it can be in the next five years, which, what is that?

“I think it can be the best place in the Big 12.”

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